Spoiler alert. My primary examination of this film relates to the final 15 minutes or so. If you intend to see this film and prefer to be surprised, stop reading right here. And please feel free to come back and read this article when you’ve seen it.
I believe that every Christian who happens to view this film needs to understand what is very profoundly wrong with it.
The movie is based on a 1966 novel that emerges from the imagination of an author (Shusaku Endo). It is NOT based on historical sources affirming the existence or the apostasy of priests either by the names of Ferreira and Rodrigues or by any other names. For the record, I did not read the novel and after viewing the film have no intention to do so.
So the very first thing to realize is that you’re NOT watching something that actually happened; but rather things that an author and a film producer (Martin Scorsese) imagined to have happened.
The next thing to realize is that, from an artistic point of view, the movie was very well done. It is beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted, and the story is intensely compelling. Note, however, that I say that in the way that I would say that, from the same point of view, Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” which advanced Adolf Hitler as a Messiah figure in one of the great works of propaganda ever made, was also “very well done.” As an example of that earlier propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will” begins masterfully from an artistic/propaganda perspective: Adolf Hitler’s airplane bringing Him to his people as he soars across the sky toward them, with the camera looking down at the ground below – and you see the shadow that looks like a cross. And the visual message is inescapable: Adolf Hitler was sent by God to save his people; he is their messiah! But it is a very different thing to be artistically beautiful and “true,” isn’t it? I hope you can declare that with me.
That is how I ultimately view “Silence,” as a piece of propaganda that directly attacks Christian witness and the Christian spirit that is willing to suffer and even die for the sake of Jesus Christ (who suffered and died for us) and for the Gospel of the message of His cross.
A further thing you must understand is that it is simply impossible for me to divorce this film from our own current dark world, where more Christians are being persecuted and martyred than at any time in history. In the Middle East, in Africa, frankly all over the world, Christians are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ. And why would there be no connection between Islamic State of today, for example, and the Japanese shogunates when in fact both tormenters had the identical same project and used the identical same vicious tactics? The only possible difference is that the Japanese shogunate regime had a subtle plan to psychologically torture and subvert the priests, rather than merely solely relying on bloodbath tactics.
I submit to you that if you want to see a film about Jesus in which the hero/protagonist is Judas Iscariot, then this is the movie for you. And I will support that claim later in this article. But I offer here the fact that Rodrigues wonders repeatedly throughout the film what Jesus meant when He said to Judas who was about to betray Him, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). Rodrigues wondered how Jesus felt when He said this; was He angry?
The film begins with two priests (Rodrigues and Garupe) passionately arguing that they need to go to Japan to find out what happened to to a priest named Ferreira who had been their mentor and confessor. Ferreira had been caught up in the persecution against Christians as the shogunate rulers who were attempting to unify the country and repel foreigners focused their attack against the Christianity they saw as foreign and therefore a malevolent influence on Japan’s sovereignty. In eradicating Christianity, the Japanese regime believed it would eradicate foreign influence. All the Catholic Church had from Ferreira was a letter detailing the horrifying persecutions that had been written years before and painstakingly smuggled to them.
Rodrigues and Garupe wanted to find Ferreira. Or at least find out what had happened to him. But the Church did not want them to go, informing the two priests that Ferreira had apostocized and betrayed his faith.
What is interesting – and became quite significant to me later as I watched the film – is that all the Church has to go on are unverified and unsubstantiated stories and rumors. And the two priests passionately believed in the faith of Ferreira and demanded nothing less than certainty before allowing the true Christian faith of such a man to be denied. This becomes important later as it exposes what found to be a very hypocritical aspect to this film.
Against all advice, the two priests are determined to go, and go they do. They are smuggled into Japan. Their guide is a Japanese man named Kichijiro who at their first meeting is a drunk and a liar. He denies being a Christian but the priests know that the fact that he speaks their language (which would have been Spanish), he must have been a Christian. They travel to a remote landing site. And there’s a terrifying moment as they are rowed to the shore as seemingly menacing hands reach out from the sea to grab them. But these are Christians who are overjoyed that priests are finally among them again who literally swam out to meet them and couldn’t wait to touch these blessings from Christ.
None of the Japanese Christians has ever heard of Ferreira or knows what happened to him. The priests are shocked at the horror of their suffering and awed by the glory of their incredible faith which has enabled them to endure even the unendurable.
The Japanese Christians at the first village they go to haven’t had a priest in years. Which means – on the (deeply flawed in biblical terms) Catholic view, they had no Mass and no confession of sins. They had endured by sheer faith and desperate allegiance to Christ.
The village of Christians are ultimate discovered as the “Inquisitor” comes to their village. Rodrigues continues to another village where there are Christians while Garupe remains to minister to the first flock. Kichijiro serves as Rodrigues’ guide. And Rodrigues learns the story of Kichijiro: he had professed faith in Christ, but had aposticized (stepped on the face of Jesus and His apostles in a plaque detailing the Last Supper that is placed on the ground) even though the rest of his family refuses. He fled, but had lingered to watch them all be burned alive. He says the smell is still in his nostrils.
And can he be forgiven for his apostasy? Rodrigues hears his confession and grants him absolution. And ultimately it emerges in the film as he has to keep doing so, he does it mechanically, because its his job to hear confession and mouth the words of absolution.
But ultimately apostocizes again. And again and again and again. Oh, and betrays Rodrigues for a reward of 300 pieces of silver in the middle of all of his other apostasies. Rodrigues comes to realize what a truly miserable and despicable wretch Kichijiro is. Kichijiro has a habit of continuing to apostacize while other Christians remain firm to the death, and then come crawling back, only to keep betraying the faith over and over and over again. Again, Rodrigues’ insight into Kichijiro’s loathsome character becomes significant to me as I continued watching the film.
Rodrigues is betrayed and delivered into the hands of the Inquistor – by Kichijiro, of course – and the Japanese authorities begin to work to undermine the priest so that he will apostacize.
The Japanese have learned that the best strategy to undermine the faith of the priests is not to torture them, but rather to torture their converts and declare that the priests are responsible for these poor people’s suffering and the can stop it at any time just by apostocizing and stepping on Jesus’ face. So Rogrigues, kept alone in a cage, is treated quite well while the Japanese Christians suffer. Rodrigues is given only enough time with the Japanese Christians to feel responsible for them; not enough to encourage/exhort them to stand up for their faith in Christ.
This tactic does not initially seem to work. But the Japanese authorities throw Rodrigues a shock surprise. They lead a group of captured Christians toward where Rodrigues is being held – and at the head of the procession is his fellow priest Garupe. Rodrigues’ interrogator informs him that they have told Garupe that Rodrigues had apostocized. And then they proceed with their torture/execution: the bound Christians are inserted into a wicker sheeth (to weigh them down as the water saturates) and tossed into the water and held down with oars to complete their drowning.
Garupe sees this, and even though bound, rushes into the water to save the Christians. He reaches one – a girl we got to know in the film named Monica – and tries to lift her up even as the Japanese use their oars to hold her down. The oars never touch Garupe, but he will not let go of the girl and drowns with her. While Rodrigues screams in anguish, knowing his heroic friend died believing he had apostacized. It is ironic that the heroic Christian Garupe’s belief would ultimately later be proven to be true. Because while we don’t know it at the moment, Rodrigues WOULD apostacize just as the Japanese told Garupe that he had done.
But that isn’t all the tricks the Japanese shogunates have. They also have one more priest – and this is the one that is utterly devastating to Rodrigues.
It is the priest Ferreira. And the unsubstantiated rumors the Church authorities had received were in fact true: Ferreira truly had apostacized and become a Buddhist monk and had been living with them for years. And Ferreira had completely denied the faith that he had gone to Japan to instill in so many others. He was a leader who had utterly betrayed his own conscience, his own teaching and all of his followers who had believed his message.
Ferreira’s attack on Christianity, on the faith of the Japanese Christians who had perished by the tens of thousands for their faith, and on Rodrigues is devastating where the efforts to undermine on the part of the shogunates had merely been anguishing.
Rodrigues claims that the Japanes word for “God” is the word for the sun. He claims that the Japanese don’t even understand Christianity, that the faith that they are dying for is NOT the true Christian faith.
He argues – as the shogunate Inquisitor had argued – that Japan is a country and a race of people that is comparable to a swamp, where nothing grows. And that true Christian faith is impossible to them. The Inquisitor had declared this and Rodrigues had responded by first saying the words, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Which obviously included Japan and the Japanese unless Jesus, the gloriously risen Son of the Living God was profoundly mistaken. Rodrigues had also pointed out the obvious fact that hundreds of thousands of Japanese had believed; and it wasn’t that Japanese couldn’t believe, but that the shogunates were poisoning the field. That alone was preventing the spread of the Gospel. And Rodrigues also pointed out that as a simple matter of logic, something cannot be “true” and “false” at the same time. The “truth” HAD to be true in all cases and in all places. As an example (this from me, not from Rodrigues in the film), can one reasonably argue that it is okay for one culture to torture and murder infants for fun but wrong for another one? No! A universal truth is universally true by its very nature. All three of these points were simple statements of fact.
But the heretic and apostate priest Ferreira now claims that none of the Japanese had truly believed the Gospel. The heretic priest knows BETTER than Jesus, the Christ whom he had betrayed. The Japanese people were just worshiping the sun above them; no Japanese person was created in the image of God; they were merely animals (“swamp creatures”) who could not be saved. And they were being slaughtered in vain, rather than for any legitimate faith.
I call that one an “unsubstantiated rumor.” Because at no point in the film had there EVER been ANY reason to believe that the devout Christians who were tortured and died for their faith didn’t have “true faith.” In fact, at many points in the film, Rodrigues acknowledges being AMAZED by their faith.
And so now I take this to the direct comparison I began above to the Islamic world: what is the Arabic word for “God”? It is “ALLAH.” And so what word do Arab Christians use to refer to the God of the Bible? Allah. Does the fact that Arabic Christians use the only word their language gives them for “God” mean that there can be no such thing as an Arabic Christian, because if nothing can grow in Japan, then surely we can see today that nothing can possibly grow in the Middle East???
This amounts to outright racist blasphemy and the denial of the Imago Dei that is innate in all humanity. Jesus told us to preach the Gospel “to every creature.” 1 Timothy 2:3-4 declares, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
For me, this is a place where the integrity of the film utterly breaks down. Because what is previously affirmed is denied without reason or cause. But nevertheless, the movie character Rodrigues has been undermined to believe the lie.
Then Ferreira rebukes Rodrigues, telling Rodrigues that he had continually compared himself and his suffering to Jesus – and that the Japanese Christians would NEVER do that. I believe that this rebuke was valid, indeed: and I ask who do you believe is more right? The Japanese Christians who suffered and died for their faith while refusing to compare themselves to Jesus, or the priests who betrayed that faith even as they pridefully compared themselves to their faith’s Ultimate Paradigm? That is an incredibly telling dialogue, because it reveals the ultimate character flaw of both Ferreira and Rodrigues: they never lost their human pride, their vanity.
The Word of God declares, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). But these priests – I submit according to their Jesuit training – were FILLED with pride and a haughty spirit. Who was the Savior of the Japanese Christians? And for the priests Ferreira and Rodrigues, the subconscious response would have been, “I am.” But that isn’t true. And as Rodrigues rightly pointed out in a previous dialogue, the Japanese Christians were NOT dying for him, but for Jesus and for their faith in the grace of the One who had suffered and died for them.
Ultimately, they cherished their vanity/pride above their faith in Jesus.
When you consider Catholic doctrine, it is too easy to see who easy it is for this to become internalized: who can perform the Mass? ONLY a priest, because ONLY a priest has the magic power to miraculously transform the wafer and the wine into the actual, physical Body and Blood of Jesus. There is ABSOLUTE NO PLACE in the Word of God where this twisted doctrine is taught. It is an arrogant, prideful doctrine that creates arrogant, prideful priests. And similarly, who alone can take confession, which is a necessary rite? Any Christian, which the Bible declares? 1 Peter 2:5 declares that EVERY Christian believer is a living stone, being built into a spiritual house (temple) for a HOLY PRIESTHOOD through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:9 declares that EVERY Christian belongs to “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that we may proclaim the excellence of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Revelation echoes this theme, declaring that Christ has loved us and freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom of PRIESTS (Rev 1:6, see also Rev 5:10); and James 5:16 commands us to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” There is NO biblical New Testament doctrine whatsoever requiring ordained priests for this. This is nothing more than an organization, a bureaucracy, seeking to impose its control for its own sake. And what we end up with on the Jesuit view is an ordained priesthood that is ontologically superior. There are Christians, who are nothing and have no spiritual powers; and there are the Catholic Übermensch (to put it in Nietzschean terminology) who stand above the rest of us and possess powers that only they alone of all men can possess. And they possess it not by their personal spirituality and piety, but rather by declarative fiat of their organization.
So, ultimately, “Silence” is a fictional piece set in a terribly real time describing the fictional story of what could have happened as the cunning shogunates undermined the Jesuit priests by constantly appealing to their pride, their arrogance, their vanity, which had been instilled in them by their own Jesuit doctrines.
Whose job was it to save the Japanese Christians? Why, it was Rodrigues’ job, of course. Not God’s. And Rodrigues could only do his job by stepping on the face of Jesus.
This arrogance is NOT merely incipient in Jesuits, or Catholics; it is also incipient for all those liberal Christians whose “Gospel” message is a SOCIAL gospel of providing for material needs and avoiding the REAL need of people for Jesus. Man’s ultimate dilemma isn’t sin resulting in spiritual death and ultimate hell, it’s something physical. When Jesus declared Himself to be the Bread of Life, and that he who comes to Him would never hunger, and that he whe believes in Him would never thirst (John 6:35), He was very clearly contrasting Himself with the physical and focusing on the spiritual. That same Jesus later said in the same Gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
Because our physical lives are not the end-all; because death is not the end. Because Jesus made a new Kingdom possible for us to inherit. If we but have the faith to pursue it.
This message, “Abandon your faith, and you shall be saved” is utterly twisted. But it is the ultimate message of this film.
At the last, the movie the very title of the movie “Silence” betrays its fundamental and inherent hypocrisy again: God wasn’t “silent”; He had merely waited to speak until the right moment just before the ultimate decision to betray Him. Jesus had been “silent” all along until the very end when He speaks to Rodrigues just before the priest apostacizes and denies Jesus by stepping on His face. Jesus says to Rodrigues, “Go ahead, step on My face.” The way He had previously said the words to Judas that had been so mystifying to Rodrigues, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
It is easy to understand, from a purely and merely human point of view, why the man or woman who is not truly a member of the Kingdom of heaven would be shocked and appalled by martydom. All you have to do is one simple little thing, “a formality,” one of the Japanese shogunates had called it. In the first century – while the New Testament was still being written – all Christians had to do to appease their Roman emperors was to burn incence to Caesar and declare, “Caesar is lord.” And they would not do it and died by the hundreds of thousands for their faith.
Jesus said, “whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
That is the factual record of Christian martydom throughout history. The Book of Hebrews in the greatest passage on faith, contrast the victory of faith with the suffering of faith and to the latter declares, “But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us” (Heb 11:35b-40).
I submit to you that, however imperfectly the Japanese Christian martyrs understood Christianity – primarily as a result of very imperfect Jesuit dogma – they were truly saved. There is NEVER any evidence offered to the contrary in the film apart from the word for God being the word for “the sun.”
But the twisted, warped, perverted message of this film is, “Step on the face of Jesus and deny Him. That’s what our Lord who died for us likes.” It is the message for people who purely live in this world, and whose reward is solely in this world, who offer that as “reasonable.” This world is all we have; and so the “righteous” must cling to this world.
In my final words, I will try to answer the question, “Can a Christian who renounces his or her faith under duress still go to heaven?” And I would submit to you yes. For example Peter denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times (a record that Kichijiro broke in this film). And St. Peter was restored by Jesus. Did that mean that denying Jesus was the right thing to do? If you have ANY spiritual or even literary understanding whatsoever, you cannot possibly answer “yes” to that question. Which is what makes this movie that is so well filmed and acted and narrated so ultimately irrational and so disappointing.
I submit that there are heroic Christians who STAND for their faith in the Jesus who suffered and died for them and they are REWARDED for their sacrifice in the place where they stored up their treasures – in heaven (called “Paradise” in the film by the Japanese who remembered what Jesus said to the thief on the cross who asked Jesus to remember Him in His Kingdom: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39). But that there are and always have been Christians who are more fleshly and weak. 1 Corinthians 3:15 talks about such Christians and their works in these terms: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved–even though only as one escaping through the flames.” Just as on a professional sports team you have your highly paid stars who by their talent and skill dominate the game; you have your more average workhorse players who fill their roles; and you have your benchwarmers who will never see gametime unless somebody gets hurt; so also you have great Christians who do great things and will receive great reward in heaven, you see more average Christians who serve as best as they are able, and you have your occasional pew fillers who do little else. But then, on the spiritual side, there are also those who professed allegiance to Jesus but were never truly saved, who will one day stand before Him and point to their works (Matthew 7:22); and Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:23).
Again, Jesus said, “whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). “Silence” actually twists disowning and denying Christ into a VIRTUE. And you have to decide for yourselves who your source of authority and reality is: Jesus, the divine Son of God who was born and “came into the world to testify to the truth” (John 18:37), or a fictional account testified by heretical, apostate priests.
This movie is based on historical fiction and it is based on spiritual deception. Our faith ought to be in our ultimate destination, and the reward that those who truly know Jesus will receive there. It should not be on avoiding the consequences of living for that ultiamte destination by denying the One who saved us.
I watched the end of the film and how Rodrigues and Ferreira acted and lived in the aftermath of their apostasy with interest. At one point, Ferreira uses the words “our Lord,” and Rodrigues catches him doing it. And Ferreira merely denies it, saying, “I doubt [that I said] it.” And therein is this secretive, gutless “faith” that we are left with – a hollow faith that neither produces anything or means anything” – in stark contrast to what first John the Baptist (Luke 3:9) and later Jesus proclaimed that “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19).
It’s virtually impossible to maintain that Ferreira and Rodrigues “produced good fruit” as they literally collaborated with the persecutors and torturers of Jesus Christ’s Body on earth and conspired with them to stamp out Christianity in Japan. And just as Ferreira’s apostasy had destroyed Rodrigues, so also Rodrigues’ apostasy destroyed the Japanese Christian movement. In the 2nd century – after a century of intense persecution during which the Christian church GREW – Tertullian summed it up this way, saying, “The Blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The meaning is clear: that the martyrs’ willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others. But what happens if the shepherds abandon and betray their flocks?
Jesus taught His disciples that “whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). And neither Ferreira or Rodrigues turned out to be Jesus’ disciples, denied themselves, took up their cross – (literally the instruments of their own death sentences) – or followed their Lord in His example. Instead, they accepted His invitation to abandon Him, just as Judas Iscariot had accepted Jesus’ invitation to do what he was going to do quickly.
Ferreira says “our Lord” and then immediately takes it back. Kichijiro is caught right after stepping on Jesus’ face for like the thousandth time with a Christian amulet around his neck that he tries to deny but is taken away presumably to his execution for possessing. And only at his death – after a life of one denial of Jesus after another after another – we see in Rodrigues’ cold dead hands a little cross like one he had earlier formed for the Japanese to have some physical token of the faith they were suffering and dying for. But Rodrigues would never suffer, and he would die of old age no different in outward appearance from every other Buddhist in Japan aside from his race.
Rodrigues, in particular, continued to live, but only as a hollow shell of a man. There is no joy in apostasy. And there ARE things worse than death.
The message that, “No matter how many times you deny Jesus and refuse to live for Him or take a stand for Him in any way, any shape or any form, you can still have it all” rings as hollow in the movie as it does according to what Jesus taught and what the remainder of the New Testament affirmed.
So the ultimate question is, what was the motivation behind this film? And I submit that it was good intentions even as the road to hell is PAVED with “good intentions.” As I wrote in my introductory remarks, I cannot believe this film emerged out of a vacuum. Rather, it is apparent to me that Martin Scorsese very likely was justifiably appalled by the fact that Christians are without any question THE most persecuted and martyred group of people on earth today
. And something in him reacted to that awful reality. But just because I am reacting to something awful doesn’t make my reactions good or noble – I may overreact and make a bad problem worse; I may react by imposing the wrong solution that only disheartens the oppressed and persecuted.
And it is certainly that latter course that Scorsese chooses. He reacts as a secular humanist, for whom this world is all there is. He cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven; he has no idea what happens on the other side of life. And so he seeks to alleviate the immediate suffering by trying to impose his solution: just step on the face of Jesus and deny Him; just live a life identical to the rest of the world so no one can notice the salt and light of your Christian witness (but see Matthew 5:13-16). And if a tiny little crucifix is inserted into your hands after you die of old age as others suffer and die in testimony to their Lord and to their faith in their Lord, surely that is enough. And no, it’s not. Scorsese’s is a dreadful solution that leads nowhere but spiritual death.
Even in Scorsese’s own narration, apostasy won’t do you any good. According to the Japanese torturers, the Japanese Christians had ALREADY apostacized. And yet it didn’t matter: they were still being tortured. And the point is, if you’re going to be tortured and murdered and martyred anyway, WHY NOT AT LEAST STAND UP FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE? And just as the Japanese didn’t care whether Christians apostacized or not, does anyone today actually believe that Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) cares? As far as they are concerned, people are “Christians” just because they happen to be U.S. Citizens; they will gleefully behead militant atheists for being “Christians.” There is ultimately simply no reason not to follow your Lord, follow His example, and STAND.
Returning to the obvious parallel of Arab Christians suffering and dying in the bloodbath of whatever territory Islamic State controls, can you imagine how devastating and disheartening it would be for these heroic, persecuted Christians to be told by Western elitists that they are using the word “Allah” for “God” and therefore they as Arabs cannot comprehend God or Christianity and are merely dying like stupid animals rather than as Christian saints? That is ultimately evil, not helpful.
The missionary movement to Japan produced over 400,000 Christians in the 17th century. And yet today Japan is one of the LEAST Christian nations on the face of the earth. And to whatever extent the movie “Silence” reveals any truth whatsoever, it would be that when Christians begin denying their faith – particularly when they are LED to deny their faith following the very example of their shepherds whom their Catholic theology taught them stands in the place of Christ Himself – it becomes easy to understand even within the logic of the film why Japanese soil was so spiritually poisoned.